Franck Chabbasseur is the new Directeur of Alliance Française (AF). Six months into his four year tenure, and on the eve of the Francophonie Festival, we headed over to find out his plans for one of Harare’s best known culture centres.
Franck is no newcomer to Zimbabwe. He first came to town back in 1998 when his wife landed a position at AF as a volunteer. Franck spent a year and a half teaching at L’Ecole Française, the French School. It was during this period that they fell in love with the country. He was back again in 2001, when both he and his wife worked at the French School, that time staying for two years.
Now, after three stints working in the AF network elsewhere – Cape Town, Mombasa and Vichy, back home in France – Franck has returned to take the helm of AF Harare. “When I saw that this post was vacant we said ‘shall we stay for the rest of our life in France or shall we continue with our time in Zimbabwe?’ It is very exciting to come back after 10 years,” he says happily.
It is his teaching roots and strong belief in the important role that language plays in culture that are leading him to put this element more firmly into the minds of the public when they think about AF. “You can’t separate language and culture,” he emphasises, when asked what he plans to focus on. “The main mandate for AF is to organise classes for the general public, for children, for professionals. French is part of the culture, we have to discover things through the language. The way we conduct classes, you get another view of French gastronomy, politics, and whenever we can we bring in the cultural side.”
From the outside he says that AF might seem to be more of a cultural centre but inside it is balanced with the language school – that side provides almost 70% of its income. Last year the school saw almost 600 students pass through its doors.
That’s not to say that he doesn’t see the value in the cultural side that his predecessor Charles Houdart worked so hard to develop. Charles raised funds to refurbish the theatre at the centre, a tool that Franck sees as immensely valuable. “When you have a theatre that can accommodate more than 100 people, a place where artists, both rising and established, want to perform: that’s a great thing,” he says. Luckily, he explains, the cultural programme almost runs itself. They put the venue at the disposal of the artists for a minimum fee to cover their costs. The artists take the ticketing and they organise as they want. He did stress that they need to balance so that AF can have a maintenance budget, as it is costly to keep running.
Culture, in fact, is one of the reasons that Franck wanted to return to Harare. “What is amazing with Zimbabwe is the concentration of talent, in terms of music, graphic arts, culture…And they need a place to perform. So yes, we are happy to keep providing that.”
Franck is also excited about the new restaurant about to launch on the premises. “We think a restaurant is a good thing, to give conviviality, to help people to stay here, to meet here. We believe in meeting! Socialisation is extremely important to link the culture and language.” Unfortunately for AF the last two tenants were a bad experience. This time, Franck and his team have run a strict selection process and a promising tender has just been chosen. The public can look forward to a restaurant with a French touch that will nicely complement other activity at AF: workshops linking language to food and perhaps some good French wine in the evenings.